SciTech Briefs

Navigation system found to be almost as effective as sight

Researchers at the University of Tokyo have discovered that blind rats with a geomagnetic sensor and digital compass attached to their brains are able to navigate a maze as successfully as rats who can see. Each time the blind rats moved their heads, the sensors generated electrical impulses to signal the direction they were facing. Subsequently, the rats were trained to find pellets in various mazes. Within a few days, the blind rats were able to navigate the mazes as well as rats with normal sight vision. The two groups of rodents relied on similar navigation strategies. This suggested that rats could potentially use allocentric sense, the sense of where the body is relative to the environment, to replace vision.

The research was published in Current Biology, and it is thought that such findings will be helpful in assisting blind people to independently navigate their surroundings. “The most plausible application is to attach a geomagnetic sensor to a cane so that the blind person can know the direction via tactile signals such as vibration,” said Yuji Ikegaya, a researcher from the University of Tokyo and co-author of the study.

Source: The New York Times

Physicists learn about geographic tongue condition

Geographic tongue (GT) is a condition where red patches appear when filiform papillae on the tongue are lost. GT affects approximately 2 percent of the global population, but its exact cause is unknown. Gabriel Seiden, a researcher from the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Sofia Curland, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, noticed similarities between GT and other phenomenon like cardiac arrhythmias.

Using mathematical models, the researchers were able to model the disease as a dynamic system that involved a healed state, inflamed state, and a recovering state. This model, termed the cellular automaton model, was published in the New Journal of Physics.

The model accounted for the presence of multiple lesions of different sizes expanding on the epithelium simultaneously and merging upon contact, thus leading to highly irregular patterns. Still, Seiden admitted that “we do not know exactly how spiral patterns form in GT patients due to lack of careful clinical studies on initiation and evolution of different patterns.”

Source: Scientific American

Plague hits prairie dogs and changes various ecosystems

The same bacterium that caused the Black Death a few hundred years ago, Yersinia pestis, now rarely infects people in North America. However, it has caused the death of many black-tailed prairie dogs. This has the potential to be a serious problem for the ecosystem. A variety of other species rely on the existence of prairie dogs, so the disappearance of the species has the potential to compromise the overall health of the ecosystem. Specifically, prairie dog predators will be affected, but animals that use prairie dog burrows and grass patterns will also be drastically affected by the diminishing population.

“The connection between these animals and plants will be distorted and even broken,” said David Eads, a professor from Colorado State University. To correct this issue, Eads and his colleagues are searching for new ways to control the spread of Yersinia pestis. They are currently testing an insecticide that may be able to reduce the number of fleas, thus making the plague less infectious. “If we can’t control the problem, the grasslands are probably going to be far different within the next 100 years,” Eads said.

Source: NewScientist

Smartphone data provides warnings of earthquakes

New research by Jawbone, a consumer technology and wearable device company, shows that sensors in smartphones can give early warnings of an earthquake. Recent analysis of data from an earthquake that took place last August in California indicated that smartphones with GPS sensors may reveal a lot of information right before an earthquake.

On an ordinary day, we use GPS to map our way to a store, but GPS systems can also sense a sudden lurch in one direction. In the context of an earthquake, such a lurch sensed by many people at once could indicate a seismic shift. Benjamin Brooks, a researcher at the Earthquake Science Center, along with various colleagues, has tested what crowdsourced GPS data might look like in a real earthquake.

With simulations of real-life earthquakes that occurred before, such as the earthquake in Japan in 2011, the researchers have gathered data that suggests data from around 5000 people would be enough to spot the beginnings of a major earthquake. This would leave approximately five seconds to warn major populations, which could make a difference in the way populations respond.

Source: NewScientist

SpaceX to launch reusable rocket again on Monday

SpaceX plans to launch the robotic Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) using a Falcon 9 rocket on April 13, as part of a $1.6 billion NASA contract. The Monday launch will be the sixth of twelve cargo missions to the ISS incorporated in the contract. The goal of the launch is to send Dragon toward the ISS and then bring the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket back to Earth for a soft touchdown on an unmanned drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX attempted the same reusable-rocket Dragon cargo launch earlier this year. The mission failed because after the Falcon 9 rocket hit the drone ship it exploded on the deck. It is thought that this occurred because the rocket ran out of hydrolic fluid before safely landing on the ship. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk vowed to fix that particular issue in time “for the next attempt.” Monday’s test is part of SpaceX’s effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, which, according to Musk, would reduce the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100 if successful.

Source: Scientific American